Ask A Cabaret Question Wednesday At McElrath Cabaret–How Do You Create A Vocal Interpretation For A Song? Thoughts from John “Coach” Moawad–Join the Conversation!

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A video featuring the work of Coach Moawad and the Central Washington University Jazz Band with a medley from West Side Story from 1983.  It is not Coach speaking at the beginning of the video–not really sure who this is, as they were not credited on the video credits.  Enjoy!


Wednesday is the day of the week when we at McElrath Cabaret will post a cabaret question for the consideration of our readers.


The questions will have something to do with cabaret, in all its many aspects. The question may take the form of a poll, to which we encourage you to respond, or it may be a question posed to the cabaret community, to which you can leave your response in the comments section at the bottom of the page.


We encourage you to send us any cabaret question that you have that you would like us to pose to the group! You can leave a question in the comments section below, or you can email it to us at kjandathenacabaret [at] Just fill in the [at] with the @ symbol—we need to foil the spam bots, don’cha know.


Today’s question is this: How do you create a vocal interpretation for a song?


I hadn’t really planned to blog about this, but I was going through some papers yesterday and came across one that I have saved for many years.  The thoughts I am going to share with you are not my own, but were written by someone that I knew when I was a college student.  He was a mentor, and someone who had the respect of every student who ever had the privilege of working with him on jazz music, and his name was John Moawad.  He always thought of himself as being a “Coach” to his students, and thus his nickname was firmly attached by all who knew him.  He passed away in 2009, and he was beloved by his students.  He taught a History of Jazz class that KJ and I used to sit in the back of the auditorium to take in whenever we could fit it into our schedule (we weren’t registered for the class or anything–it was just so good, and so “Coach,” that students used to drop in all the time to hear him.)–he always knew when we were there, and would throw questions our way.  There is a jazz festival in Ellensburg, Washington, where Central Washington University is located and where Coach taught for many years, which he helped to found.  He was very kind to KJ and myself–serving on KJ’s graduate committee while he studied at Central, and giving me access to his office/recording studio when I was working on a radio drama that I had written and directed that needed to be recorded, to name just a few of many instances.  He was very funny, an excellent teacher, and we both loved him and miss him.


At one point, while I was a theatre major, I decided to try out for his Vocal Jazz ensemble.  I didn’t get in, but this was one of the best audition experiences I’ve ever had in my life.  It was held daily, over the course of several days.  Coach came into the choir room, and talked to us about jazz music and singing jazz music.  He gave tips on how to do a good job with the music.  He told a lot of anecdotes, usually funny and often ribald ones, about musicians and singers and things that had happened in his life with music.  After about a week of this, he then had us each come in and sing a song for him.


At one point during the process, he gave everyone a sheet of paper that contained “Some Thoughts On Vocal Interpretation,” and this is what I am going to share with you today.  In a nutshell, he just nails what should be happening when you get up to sing, and although he was not speaking directly to cabaret singers, nevertheless what he says applies to us as well.  He wrote this in 1992, and he gave it out to the students in my group in 1995.  I’ve kept it ever since, because it inspires me when I am preparing songs for cabaret shows.

Here it is:

 Without getting involved about what makes a vocalist a jazz singer, and what does not, there are fundamental capacities which all “great” singers, jazz or jazz oriented, must be able to claim.  An important aspect of a jazz singer is being extremely sensitive to the background movements and energies of the rhythm section.  The depth and skill of the vocalist’s interactions with what the rhythm section is doing are a part of what determines the differences between a reading and an interpretation, a recital of a lyric (text) and its elevation into an experience.

I know of very few lyrics that have the intrinsic power and poetry that will make for a real communication of emotion on a meaningful level by merely being presented.  The vocalist must explore the lyrics to find the point at which the song touches something in their own experience.  The singer must reveal the discovery (and simultaneously touch their listening audience) through the extemporaneous thrusts and turns of their phrasing.  The true meaning of words are really defined by the way in which the voice expresses them.  If the singer is not emotionally committed to the story of a song (and what would include a careful study of the chords and melody as well as the lyric) you will probably not have any communication.  Often you will hear mannerisms and “gimmicks” designed to simulate an emotion that is not really felt (honest) and which will tell you only what the emotion is supposed to be, but nothing that is really new about it.  You must sing with passion of personal statement in a style that is a natural outgrowth of what your statement is about.  And lastly, be sure that you maintain your very own personal identity.

                                                                                   John F. Moawad



So how do you create a vocal interpretation of a song?  What vocal interpretations have you created that your audience really likes? Did you know Coach?  If so, let us know down in the comments section!  


I truly look forward to your joining the conversation with your comments, and any tips or suggestions you have on this topic! We value each of our readers very much, and hope to entertain you and give you a place to come and learn more about cabaret.


Till next time, 


ps–The Cabaret Soiree Link Party is still going strong–you can visit anytime to click on the links and see what others have posted, or you can share your own recent cabaret blog or cabaret website link from now through Thursday.  Link is below.


Weekly Post Lineup At McElrath Cabaret:

Mondays:  Cabaret Soiree Cabaret Blog Link Party

Tuesdays:  Cabaret Tip Tuesday

Wednesdays:  Ask A Cabaret Question

Thursdays:  Featured Cabaret Blog, Website, Performer

Fridays:  Cabaret Through Time

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About Athena at McElrath Cabaret

Athena McElrath is an entertainer with a love for theatre and singing. She enjoys delving in the area of historical cabaret, researching the singers and clubs that were in business from before 1920 to the present, in New York and beyond.
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2 Responses to Ask A Cabaret Question Wednesday At McElrath Cabaret–How Do You Create A Vocal Interpretation For A Song? Thoughts from John “Coach” Moawad–Join the Conversation!

  1. My fave advice I have ever received was from vocal and audition coach Michael Chapman. It was to really be in the moment of whatever you are feeling and then apply them to lyric of the song you are currently singing. It makes each moment completely new and genuine! If you are having a bad day or an off day it all still works! I love that! Best advice ever! ;-)